June 20, 2004
Section: Opinion
Page: C1

Taxpayers' Best Option Still Hotel Syracuse

   Mike Stanton, Preservation Association of Central New York

The selection committee for the Onondaga County convention center has recommended that the county build a new hotel rather than restore the recently closed Hotel Syracuse. This decision ignores the wishes of most Onondaga County residents and requires that county taxpayers contribute more than $20 million to the project that would not be required for restoration of the Hotel Syracuse - and at a time when the county budget is so tight that drastic cuts in jobs and programs are contemplated.

Many are treating the selection committee's recommendation as if it were the final word. It is not. The entire Onondaga County Legislature still must vote on this measure. Legislators have the opportunity - the obligation, in fact - to ask hard questions about the hotel options.

When the county put out a request for proposals for a new convention center hotel, it offered to help the chosen developer in only two ways. First, the site for the new hotel, across the street from the Oncenter, would be provided free. Second, the new hotel would be given the status of "official" and "exclusive" convention center hotel so the developer could be sure that convention business would be funneled there.

Of the hotel proposals the county received, only one agreed to move forward with just those two incentives: the Hotel Syracuse restoration proposal from Historic Restoration Incorporated of New Orleans. In fact, HRI told the county it didn't need one of the incentives: the hotel site. The city of Syracuse had already agreed to donate the Hotel Syracuse to HRI for $1 if the company would agree to fully restore it.

Developers proposing to build a new hotel said thanks for the free site, but they didn't really need designation as the official convention center hotel. Because it would be just across the street, attached by a sky bridge, the new hotel builders already had de facto official hotel status.

But there was one thing new hotel developers did need that the county hadn't offered - a $20 million investment. "Look," they said, "why don't you loan us $20 million, then when the hotel opens and starts paying taxes, you can use these new taxes to pay off our loan."

And this may not be the end of the giveaways. One of the new hotel developers is also asking for a portion of the revenue from the existing convention center garage.

Although HRI isn't asking for $20 million, or parking lot revenue, it needs that originally promised "exclusive" designation. This is particularly important with a potential hotel site across the street from the convention center. A study commissioned by the county found that, at the moment, the downtown market could absorb one - and only one - 350-room convention center hotel. HRI told the county that anyone interested in financing the Hotel Syracuse restoration would need assurance that the county would not be building another, competing convention center hotel anytime soon. The selection committee called this unreasonable.

The selection committee's willingness to invest $20 million of our tax dollars in construction of a new hotel is even more baffling when you consider the strength of public opinion favoring restoration of the Hotel Syracuse.

A public opinion poll conducted in May of this year asked county residents whether they would prefer to see the Hotel Syracuse restored to serve as the new convention center hotel, or a new hotel built for this purpose. The response was almost 3 to 1 for the Hotel Syracuse.

Why did the selection committee ignore the most cost-effective and popular option - the Hotel Syracuse? Here are some of their reasons.

Selection panel: The Hotel Syracuse is too far from Oncenter.

HRI has provided the design for a skybridge that would connect the Hotel Syracuse with the convention center one block away. There is already an underground walkway between the two buildings. Still, the selection committee complains the distance is too great.

In fact, most convention centers in North America do not have an on-site hotel. A good example is the Jacob Javits Center in New York City, host to some of the nation's largest conventions, where the closest hotel is six blocks away. Montreal's convention center has no attached hotel but thousands of hotel rooms within walking distance through the city's underground walkway system.

Selection panel: The Hotel Syracuse already has been remodeled - twice.

Syracuse has never seen a restoration of the kind HRI proposes, not on this scale at least. In essence they will be building a new hotel within an old one. Every inch of wiring and plumbing will be replaced, a completely new heating and cooling system will be installed, elevators will look the same from the inside but all lift mechanisms will be replaced. The emergency stairwell running all the way to the 10th floor ballroom will be enlarged and an additional stairwell will be added to bring the building up to modern code. There will be all new equipment in the kitchens and laundry rooms, and every guest room and bathroom will be reconfigured to the size and proportion required of a four-star hotel.

All the while, HRI will be preserving and restoring the parts of the Hotel Syracuse that make it irreplaceable: the chandeliers, the plaster work and elaborate moldings. In the end we will have the best of both worlds: all the conveniences of a modern hotel with the beauty and charm of an historic landmark.

Panel: The HRI plan is too expensive.

True, the cost of remodeling the Hotel Syracuse is higher than the bids for a new hotel. But the Hotel Syracuse project will cost the taxpayer less - remember, no $20 million investment required. This is money that will be flowing into our community, not out of our pockets. How is this possible? Part of the reason is federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits for up to 20 percent of restoration costs, unavailable for construction of a new hotel. And by the way, a restoration project like this is labor-intensive, creating more than 1,000 full-time jobs for two years.

Panel: Conventions won't book until the Hotel Syracuse restoration is complete.

Selection committee members have said this is the primary reason they didn't choose the Hotel Syracuse. The county, they say, can start booking conventions for a new hotel as soon as construction begins, but they can't book conventions for the Hotel Syracuse until the restoration project is complete. This hasn't been the experience with other large-scale hotel restoration projects, but let's assume for the moment that it is true.

The Hotel Syracuse has been a fixture in our community since 1924; properly restored it could serve generations yet to come. The convention center has lacked a competent hotel partner since it opened in the 1992. Should the number of bookings during the months when the hotel is under construction/renovation be the primary deciding factor for which hotel is chosen? Is there any possibility this difference in revenue could equal the $20 million taxpayers are being asked to invest in a new hotel?

HRI's latest large-scale hotel project is the 916-room Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis. It is the official hotel of the America's Center, a convention center roughly three times the size of our Oncenter. Half of this hotel is new construction; the other half is the restored 1917 Statler Hotel, designed by the same architectural firm that designed the Hotel Syracuse: George Post and Sons.

Dennis Wagner, manager of the Renaissance St. Louis, has some experience booking conventions and working with restored historic hotels. I told him our convention center personnel expect it will be easier to book events for an unfinished new hotel than an unfinished hotel restoration. He didn't buy it. "It will be hard either way," he said. The worst nightmare of any convention planner, he said, booking an event more than a year in advance, is that they will get a call a few months before the convention saying the facility won't be ready in time. Wagner predicts we'll find convention planners reluctant to make a commitment before the official hotel opens, regardless of whether the hotel is new or restored.

With the drop in international and domestic travel since 9/11, the St. Louis Renaissance has been struggling to meet occupancy projections. I asked Wagner if he had any regrets about making the historic Statler hotel part of the project. "Not at all," he said. "When people walk into the lobby for the first time, they are just stunned." He said the Crystal Ballroom, very similar to the Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Syracuse, is booked solid for banquets and receptions. J.W. Marriott, president of the Marriott chain, includes the St. Louis Renaissance among the five most beautiful facilities in his world-wide chain of over 100 hotels.

Has the new/restored hotel benefited the area around the hotel? Wagner said the Renaissance has been a catalyst, sparking development of restaurants and shops all around the hotel. "This hotel," he said, "is the best thing to happen to downtown St. Louis in years."

Copyright, 2004, The Herald Company